A wandering scholar

Posted on Thursday, May 7, 2020

Robert Harris in Columbia

"Don't be afraid of taking a detour, it may lead you to a better place."

— Dr. Robert Harris, MD 1990

By Dr. Robert Harris
Guest Writer

Dr. Robert Harris paused his medical studies for two years in the late 1980s to travel the world and gain experience in different health care settings. He recounts his experiences in this excerpt from his essay, first published in Memories - Faculty of Medicine 1945-1995.

It all started after my third year of medicine. On April 4, 1987, I left for Oxford, England, for a month of rehabilitation medicine and formal dinners at Green and Magdalen Colleges. At one of these I met a Japanese bioengineer who invited me for sushi at his home. Over sushi he proposed that I do an elective in Sapporo, Japan; he would arrange it all for me. How could I refuse? I agreed to make some space for Japan in my year's schedule.

Next to Edinburgh, Scotland, and internal medicine at the venerable, museum-like Royal Infirmary, where each ward round was a masterful demonstration of the art of bedside clinical diagnosis and where the consultant's anecdotes amused nurses, registrars, house officers, students and patients alike in the enormous sixty-bed wards. A month later I went to the cradle of geriatric medicine, the City Hospital. My interest in geriatric care grew enormously. And I bought a Harris tweed cap at the Isle of Harris and Lewis.

Following wise advice, my next two months were spent backpacking around Europe. Crossing to Corfu, Greece, I met Vincent Wong, a Hong Kong teacher. He insisted I visit his home town. I agreed. But a year was starting to look like a very short time.

Next, a flight to Cairo and a bus ride to Israel…Six weeks of radiology at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Trips to Mount Sinai, the Golan Heights, intense discussions with other travellers inspired by the awesome events in the Holy Land's history.

Back to Cairo and six weeks of surgery. Cases of cholera and tetanus neonatorum. … Sharing the apartment of an undercover Canadian evangelical Christian missionary who was learning Arabic and reading the New Testament in its original Greek. (Non-islamic missionaries were outlawed in Egypt). 

An invitation to do an elective in Australia. One year is too short. I must extend it to two years... The Faculty of Medicine warns me that "Any failures in your final year cannot be excused by your prolonged absence." They didn't realize that many of my successes in my future life will be because of those two years…

Flight to Madras (India), train to Vellore's Christian Medical College and a three-month research project in community health. The intern's lounge has the best Indian food I have ever tasted. All you can eat, with your hand, of course… Two weeks in the south then to Bihar for a month at a Mennonite missionary hospital run by a British surgeon and two Indian GPs. Then two months of travelling: Northern India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma and Thailand. 

I fly to Hong Kong and then to Japan. I hitch-hike from Tokyo to Sapporo for two months of orthopaedics. The drug companies treat us to eel and rice delicacies (as opposed to pizza and donuts). To Mount Fuji and Hiroshima and the shortest possible ride in the expensive bullet train. I meet a Chinese biology masters student in Sapporo. She is returning home and offers to show me around China. Can I refuse? Another change of plans and five weeks by train and boat around China. 

Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and then two months of paediatrics in Melbourne, Australia. I become ill. The professor takes me into his home. Fellow students become devoted care givers and friends. I can never thank them enough. Human nature has beautiful qualities. 

Two weeks in New Zealand and the long flight home to Cali, Colombia to join my family. An unforgettable Christmas, then four months of internal and emergency medicine at the busy government hospital. They are the best teachers because the faster you learn, the more you can help them. Chest tubes, repairing deep machete wounds, following falciparum cerebral malaria, basal ganglion tuberculosis, chloramphenicol-induced aplastic anemia and their first AIDS patient. They all died while I was there...

May, 1989, and back to Ottawa and fourth year Medicine. I graduated with Meds '90. Incidentally, contrary to the Faculty's fears, between third and fourth years my class ranking increased by forty positions.

When a Meds '89 colleague met me in Vellore, her first reaction was: "Rob, you look normal." I guess back home they imagined me as a bearded hippy high on grass. The message: Don't be afraid of taking a detour, it may lead you to a better place. Go for it. God will be with you. Don't regret it later.


Robert Harris sits with a woman and man on a bike rickshaw

Robert Harris visited Bangladesh in 1988 withTineke Mostert, a nurse he met during his travels.

Robert Harris in a tux with his parents and a car

All dressed up for the 1987 Med Ball.

Robert Harris and his bride

Dr. Robert Harris and Tineke Mostert married in 1992, after meeting during their travels.

Dr. Robert Harris in medical PPE

Dr. Robert Harris practices medicine in the Netherlands today, during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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